Singapore's former chief justice Yong Pung How dies, aged 93

In his 16 years as chief justice, Mr Yong Pung How introduced sweeping changes and harnessed technology to streamline court procedures. PHOTO: BT FILE
Former chief justice Yong Pung How speaking at the opening of the legal year for 2005 in City Hall, on Jan 8, 2005. PHOTO: ST FILE
Mr Yong Pung How (left) sharing a light moment Singapore's former President Wee Kim Wee at the launch of the Children's Heart Day at the Singapore General Hospital, on Oct 1, 1994. PHOTO: ST FILE
Former chief justice Yong Pung How speaking at the opening of the legal year for 2000 in City Hall, on Jan 10, 2000. PHOTO: BT FILE

SINGAPORE - Former chief justice Yong Pung How, who implemented rigorous reforms to transform the Singapore court system into a model of efficiency, died on Thursday (Jan 9) morning, the Supreme Court has confirmed.

He was 93.

He is survived by his wife, Madam Cheang Wei-Woo, and their daughter, Ms Yong Ying-I, who is permanent secretary at the Ministry of Communications and Information.

Mr Yong and Madam Cheang, a graduate of the London School of Economics, met in 1950 while they were studying. They married in 1955.

Mr Yong's work in the legal field started as early as 1953, when he was appointed by the Singapore Government as arbitrator to resolve a dispute between the Government and a union. The union was represented by a young lawyer, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who would go on to become the country's prime minister in 1959.

Mr Yong was admitted to the Bar in 1964 and became a senior partner with the law firm of Shook Lin and Bok, until 1970. He then went into merchant banking and finance, ending up as chairman and chief executive of OCBC Bank.

On a secondment from OCBC Bank from 1981 to 1983, Mr Yong helped form the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation - Singapore's sovereign wealth fund - and became its managing director. He later became the managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

When he took the helm at the judiciary in September 1990, there was a backlog of more than 2,000 cases.

He introduced case management measures that cleared the backlog by the mid-1990s and reduced the time for cases to be concluded.

In his 16 years as Singapore's top judge, Mr Yong introduced sweeping changes and harnessed technology to streamline court procedures.

He set up specialist courts, raised the salaries for judges to attract legal talents and initiated the Justice's Law Clerk scheme to recruit top law graduates to the legal service.

In his first speech as Chief Justice, he abolished the traditional wigs worn by judges and lawyers, and salutations such as "My Lord" or "Your Lordship" for Supreme Court judges.

Mr Yong was born on April 11, 1926 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the only son in a family of six children.

Mr Yong Pung How was vice-chairman of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation in 1978. PHOTO: ST FILE

His father, Yong Shook Lin, was a prominent lawyer who co-founded the firm Shook Lin & Bok.

He was 14 when he completed his Cambridge School Certificate at the Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur in 1940.

During World War II, he took on various jobs - as a messenger, a bank clerk and a labourer at an airfield.

After the war, he read law at Downing College in Cambridge University.

There, he became friends with Mr Lee, Singapore's founding prime minister.

Former chief justice Yong Pung How (right) touring Changi Airport Terminal 3 with Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in 2007. PHOTO: ST FILE

Mr Yong graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949 and qualified as a barrister-at-law of London's Inner Temple in 1951.

After returning to Kuala Lumpur in 1952, he practised at his father's firm, which expanded under his leadership. He was also a leading member of the Malayan Chinese Association and the Alliance Party, but withdrew from politics in 1959.

He migrated to Singapore with his family in 1969.

Mr Yong was offered the post of Supreme Court judge by Mr Lee in 1976, but he declined.

He served on the Securities Industry Council from 1972 to 1981; the Board of Commissioners of Currency from 1982 to 1989; and was chairman of Singapore Broadcasting Corporation from 1985 to 1989.

Mr Yong Pung How (left) reading the affirmation of the office of chief justice with Singapore President Wee Kim Wee (centre) and outgoing chief justice Wee Chong Jin, on Sept 21, 1990. PHOTO: ST FILE

After nearly two decades away from the law, Mr Yong was persuaded to return.

On July 1, 1989, at the age of 63, he was appointed Supreme Court judge. He took office as the Chief Justice on Sept 28, 1990.

Besides his efforts to reform court processes and strengthen the quality of the Bench, Mr Yong also chose to hear all appeals of criminal cases from the then Subordinate Courts.

He earned a reputation for being tough, and "regularly" enhanced the sentence of those who appeared before him. But Mr Yong also gave second chances to offenders with psychiatric problems.

He was also well-known for his acerbic observations in the courtroom.

Mr Yong also produced the most number of judgments in the history of the Singapore Bench, with a total tally of 882 written judgments.

He retired on April 10, 2006 at the age of 80.

His many achievements aside, Mr Yong said his "finest hour" in life had nothing to do with his illustrious career as chief justice.

In an interview with The Straits Times in 2004, he said: "I would say it was the day I married my wife. We have been married for 50 years now, and I still consider her my best friend.

"To stay happily married with a good reputation and a close-knit family must be one of anybody's happiest achievements in life, whatever the work you do."

The wake will be held at 48A Nassim Road between 5pm and 10pm from Friday to Sunday. The cortege will leave for Mandai Crematorium on Jan 13 for a private funeral service.

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